Monday, July 6, 2009

Living and Dead Words


           To yesterday’s post on how public corruption happens here, this is a  note on the interplay of misinterpretations about fundamental political issues and misconceived neutrality in scholarship and journalism.   In ch. 3 of Must Global Politics Constrain Democracy?, I discuss a  common misinterpretation of the Melian dialogue in Thucydides’s History of the Peloponnesian War.  Recalling yesterday’s post, Melos marks the height of corruption in the politics and language of the Athenian ambassadors.  Yet most international relations scholars and teachers today believe that the ugly position of these anonymous voices –  the strong take what they can, the poor suffer what they must -  somehow represents great power realism, the leading position historically among academic specialists.  That the ambassadors’ position leads to genocide against the Melian men – and the enslavement of the women and children – seems to escape these scholars, for if this is “realism,” then being against “realism” is, for a human being, the same as breathing.   Representing what is decent in the democratic assembly, that Pericles and even the watered down Diodotus would have opposed such barbarity seems to escape these teachers.  Here an academic talisman – something so widely believed that people are hypnotized by it and do not question it – prevents reading.    Both realists and some of their critics assume that the 4 page dialogue out of a 700 page book enunciates a paradigmatic  “law of international politics.”  For instance, a non-realist, John Vazquez, in his edited book, Classics of International Politics, presents the Melian dialogue as a paradigm of realism.

         In contrast, Thucydides sympathized with the Melian magistrates who sought to defend the 700 year freedom of their island.  Their hopes in the Spartans, mocked by the Athenian imperialists, echo the hopes of the Athenians in Herodotus’ history of their unlikely and heroic defeat of Persian aggression. The seemingly overpowered Athenians won the battle of Salamis – somehow, the law of the stronger collapsed - and preserved and developed free republics.  They founded much of what is decent in Western civilization.  But of course, contemporary American international relations scholars don’t know much Greek history, and who has time for Herodotus?

       In Thucydides, the slaughter of the Melians turns abruptly, in the next book, into the crazed Athenian invasion of Syracuse.  There, the Athenian leader Nicias hopes and hopes, over and over again, as his situation becomes more and more desperate.   Thucydides, who writes with Platonic subtletly, means one to hear the words of the Athenian ambassadors in Nicias’ helplessness and hopelessness.   In this battle,  the great Syracusan leader,  Hermocrates, appeals to a different law which Thucydides also indicates: that if ordinary people come together for a common good, they can defeat the unheard of and famous splendor of Athenian imperialism.  As in Vietnam, the weak who are many when they unite, can overcome “the strong.”  This is a democratic “law of politics,” a democratic realism.  The great classicist W. Robert Connor wrote a marvelous book Thucydides in 1984 underlining how he had learned to read Thucydides with open eyes because he learned from Jonathan Schell’s reporting on My Lai.  Description conveys truth.  In Thucydides’ description of the horrors of Corcyra, as people slaughter each other, words change their values and cease to refer. Thucydides’s description, however, marks this change.  To say that in Corcyra, people became confused about the meanings of words does not mean that the historian is.

        The vision that “justice is the advantage of the stronger” – Thrasymachus’s position, echoing the Athenian ambassadors – in book 1 of Plato’s Republic is a trope among international relations scholars and thus, among many students who go to their courses.  This is but “might makes right.”  The resonance of this trope in the coverage of torture in the New York Times or NPR is apparent.  The Bush administration adopts torture in violation of international law – it must be doing, in its own words, “enhanced interrogation.”  Justice for the Times reporters is the advantage of the stronger.  If one thinks about the coverage of the American aggression against Iraq, the point is even clearer.  Ahmed Chalabi was interviewed by Judith Miller and Michael Gordon; his words were placed on the front page of the New York Times as fact (James Risen’s skepticism and true words were placed on p. A10 or did not make the paper).  Dick Cheney, whose neocon apparatus had helped to connect Chalabi and Miller, then pointed to the front page of the Times to embellish his lies. The Times’s editing did not pretend to neutrality between the anti-war movement and the American occupation; it backed the government explicitly, lying even about the massive anti-War protests in the United States.  The reporter of the Saturday, January 15, 2003 anti-War rally of half a million in Washington, to which I and my wife went, left two hours before the rally began – she admitted this because her reporting was so off; yet she wasn’t fired by the Times.  She “reported” that organizers were disappointed because only 10,000 people came.  NPR echoed this false report.  All over the East Coast, outraged people called the Times.  On Wednesday, the Times printed a correction, suggesting now that 100,000 came, about a fifth of those who were actually there.  The rally filled the mall and buses were still coming in (the rally at which King gave his famous speech I have a dream filled only 2/3 of the mall).  Even in the correction, the Times would not print the truth.      

      Those scholars who believe the Athenian ambassadors at Melos are also confused in a way which parallels journalists.  Though they sometimes affirm a fierce position about justice – that it is merely the advantage of the stronger – they believe that they are practicing a “value free social science. ” On the one hand, they recite the words of the government about torture, on the other, they believe in their “neutrality.”  Perhaps this is not surprising, since there is no integrity to ethics in the position that justice is the advantage of the stronger.  One is merely dominated by the powerful; what else, one might say helplessly, can one do?.  Neutrality about values, they think, is just acquiescence.

       But this idea of value-neutrality is based on a confusion between two senses of being impartial.  The decent one is not to corrupt one’s research by echoing one’s biases.  But one does research to seek the truth, a supreme value.  So to be unbiased in seeking the truth is misdescribed as value-neutrality.  Value-neutrality is a derivative or secondary value, one dependent on seeking the truth.

        The foolish sense of value freedom is to try to escape values as an absolute or self-standing principle, even with regard to the truth.  It is to affirm that truth and error, lying or plagiarism are of equal status.  On this view, however, scholarship and teaching would be uninteresting; if a teacher has nothing other to offer than this confusion (since no decent teacher enacts such a view in her teaching), then students should promptly find something better to do.  In fact, the view is self-refuting.  If there is no distinction between truth and falsehood, then there is no truth in the claim that there is no distinction between truth and falsehood.  Worse yet, even the claim about value-neutrality, being a value, is not true.  One might as well be neutral towards it, and affirm one’s most unreflective prejudices.  A self-refuting argument is unusual – for example, if I say, “I do not exist.”  But all forms of relativism either about ethics or knowledge are self-refuting (the plausible reasons why people are inclined to them can not lead coherently to inferring this idea). See Hilary Putnam, Reason, Truth and History, p. 4 and my Democratic Individuality, ch. 1.

      Many journalists have been exposed to social science, even international relations, as well as journalism courses. The idea that journalists should be neutral for instance by reporting the views of President Reagan or Bush, Jr. on evolution and those of scientists as if there were no truth to the matter is a faint echo of this error in international relations.  But the corruption of the language about torture is an even more direct parallel.  The powerful breathe, and journalists or their editors open their mouths.  Journalists abandon the plain meanings of words even about the most important things.  Oh, there is no murder in American secret prisons.  There is no torture.  There are only “harsh,” in extreme cases, “brutal interrogation techniques.”  Better journalists at least notice that the Pentagon reports 100 deaths – many homicides – in American custody.

      As John Maynard Keynes once said, the ideas of dead men in academia reach out and control the living.  This is particularly true for confused or reactionary ideas which connect with the needs of the powerful.  Academia and journalism always are shaped, to a considerable  extent, by trying to please or pleasing the powerful.  We must provide practical ideas, so institutions say, to those who have money and power, and hence even to governments which  torture.  Listen to the words with which some administrators describe what universities do and you will hear, even among those who defend what is decent, what is, in its logic, corrupt.  At its worst, this is  the travesty of the American Psychological Association which sought to legitimize psychologists participating on teams of Bush-Cheney torturers,  and in particular, the psychologists Mitchell and Jesson who adapted the SERE techniques of imagined torture on American prisoners of war to real torture of captured Arabs and Muslims in secret American prisons. See here.  Only a referendum – a possibility discovered by clever opponents - enabled rank and file psychologists to not only name torture but forbid their association’s leaders to engage in it.  But journalists, academics and administrators can also speak truth to power.  We can name torture.  We can say, with the anti-Iraq War movement, not in our name.

     For a related post, what is the worth of a teacher-scholar? see here.

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